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by Andrew L. Kaye, Ph.D.
n the beginning there wa’ nothin’ but rock. Then somebody invented the wheel, an’ things just began to roll…
Spoken with basso profundo authority by Bobby Nunn of the vocal group The Coasters, this is how the origins of rock’n’roll were explained in Leiber and Stoller’s That is Rock and Roll. Of the many explanations for rock’s origins, I am fond of this one, not only for Leiber and Stoller’s verbal wit, but because they make us think back to the beginning (which, as other musical wisdom from 1959 has it, is “a very good place to start”).
But even before we look for rock’s origins, we may wonder, “What is rock music anyway?” “Rock” is a popular musical style tied to the history of a social community that emerges in the ferment of urbanization, technological innovation, the Civil Rights struggle, and the rise of an independent youth audience that explodes onto the North American scene in the economically and culturally heady years following World War II.
Although it has gone through many transformations, there seem to be some constants in rock style. There is a core musical instrumentation involving the guitar (usually electric), the jazz drum set, bass, and the human voice—typically a male vocal in the standard tenor-baritone range, not-too-operatic and not-too-backwoodsy, and ranging somewhere between the vernacular, untrained streetwise sound of urban youth (as in Dion singing “The Wanderer,” or The Beatles belting out “It’s been a hard day’s night!”) to the more rounded, professional sound of a popular Broadway singer or gospel-influenced crooner (as in ballads sung by Elvis or Sam Cooke).
“I often like to remind my students that we can look back many thousands of years, and to Africa, for the roots of our popular musical habits.”
Rock uses the familiar harmonies of Western music, notably the major key system with its three basic chords, the tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant (C, F, and G to those who play the guitar), enriched by microtonal inflections borrowed from the blues.
The tempos of rock music, ranging from the slow ballad, to medium and fast dance time, are commonly set in duple meters (4/4 time and “cut time”) and make ample use of off-beat accents (apparent in American popular music at least since Stephen Foster and Louis Moreau Gottschalk). In melody, rock emphasizes the catchy refrain and a strophic story-melodic line, served up in three-minute time-bytes (this goes back to the medieval Western European ballad).
The story of the word is separate, as terminology in music tends to drift. As Reebee Garofalo reminds us in his textbook, Rockin’ Out, the expression “rock’n’roll” may actually already be present in English-language folk music of the pre-20th century, as suggested by its appearance in the sea shanty “Johnny Bowker.” The first known appearance of the term in recorded music is in a song recorded in 1922 by Trixie Smith, “My man rocks me, with one steady roll” (need we say more?). From this point onward, it is not uncommon to find the terms “rock,” “rockin’” or “roll” in popular music. Examples are Duke Ellington’s 1930 “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and “Roll ‘em Pete,” a 1938 recording with Pete Johnson playing boogie-woogie piano and Big Joe Turner singing (if this last one had been recorded 15 or 20 years later, it easily could have passed for rock ‘n’roll).
The terms “Rock and Roll” appear together as a song title in the early 1930s (the Boswell Sisters recorded this jazz-age tune). But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the phrase “rock’n’roll” was grafted onto the diversifying sounds of American popular music, especially black and black-influenced music. Alan Freed has claim to coining the phrase to define the music of a new generation. In 1951, the Cleveland deejay named his R&B radio program Moondog’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party, after hearing the phrase in the Dominoes’ hit “60-Minute Man.” It would take another four years for the term to go national, and this had to do with a songwriter and a musical group from Pennsylvania.
The songwriter was WWII veteran James E. Myers, a native of Philadelphia and leader of a swing-age musical ensemble, “Jimmy DeKnight and his Knights of Rhythm.” He copyrighted a song called “Rock Around the Clock,” co-written with Max Freedman, on March 31, 1953.
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